Pornography’s power over our society became clear again last month, when the popular London-based content creator subscription service OnlyFans announced that it would ban “sexually explicit” content from its platform — yet abruptly reversing course following criticism from creators and sex-positive advocates alike.
While advocates for consenting content creation celebrated the reversal, other advocates and experts worry that OnlyFans’ seemingly unchecked platform will lead to further exploitation of featured individuals.
“We are living in the world pornography has made,” Catherine A. MacKinnon, a lawyer, scholar, writer, teacher and activist, writes for a New York Times op-ed. “For more than three decades, researchers have documented that it desensitizes consumers to violence and spreads rape myths and other lies about women’s sexuality.”
“In doing so, it normalizes itself, becoming ever more pervasive, intrusive and dangerous, surrounding us ever more intimately, grooming the culture so that it becomes hard even to recognize its harms,” MacKinnon, who also teaches law at the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School, continued to detail.
OnlyFans said that its motive for the now-retracted ban was to work with credit card companies regarding payment processing concerns, yet there is an additional reason to think that the platform was trying to get ahead of being exposed for exploitation, MacKinnon explains.
To begin, MacKinnon argues that the content on OnlyFans and similar websites cannot deem a person as a “sex worker,” writing that for some, what they’re doing is not sex “in the sense of intimacy,” or work, “in the sense of productivity and dignity.”
In other words, for every independent and consenting content creator on similar platforms, there are also individuals who are being abused and trafficked on camera.
Legitimizing unchecked sexual abuses on webcamming sites like OnlyFans can be detrimental for many, MacKinnon furthers, especially when similar platforms are seeing creator-booms as the economics are seductive to those struggling financially.
Sex Work and the Pandemic
Throughout the global pandemic, nearly every industry has seen strain and difficulty, yet sex work has been severely challenged considering many people are not allowed to interact physically outside of their household, whether the rules are enforced by government lockdowns or private buisnesses, the Conversation details.
“The virus is a disaster for client-facing businesses — and sex work is no different,” says Goddess Cleo, a dominatrix from London, who recently spoke with the BBC discussing the startling increase of new women taking to an online platform to make money with explicit content.
Max Bennett, from the Stripchat website, where audiences pay to watch livestreamed intercourse, also spoke with the BBC, saying: “Adult performers are moving to livecams, as traditional [markets] have largely shut down.”
This creator increase has been documented across the board.
US-based livestreaming site Chaturbate has reported a 75 percent rise in the number of sex workers signing up since the outbreak began — an increase faster than the rate at which audience traffic is rising.
Much of this increase has to do with stories spreading like wildfire across social media regarding everyday people and celebrities alike who have seemingly hit the jackpot by posting on these websites, like celebrity Jessika Power revealing to Yahoo! Lifestyle that she made $50,000 on OnlyFans after having an account for just five days.
But much of this is smoke in mirrors, as a comprehensive study conducted by Influencer Marketing Hub found that the average OnlyFans user makes $180 a month, and most accounts take home less than $145 in the same time frame. The truth is that the top one percent of OnlyFans content creators make 33 percent of all the money on the platform, AfroTech reported earlier this month.
Even though many sex-positive advocates would argue that this should be revered as shameless work as a way to make honest money, privacy and anti-abuse advocates argue that online pornography is a “gateway activity’ to exploitation.
Online Sexual Exploitation
MacKinnon details in her editorial that serious allegations have been made against OnlyFans regarding inadequate screening for content depicting incest, bestiality and child sexual abuse. Moreover, another credible complaint was recently filed in Korea alleging that OnlyFans was hosting videos of minors.
While OnlyFans has responded saying they do not tolerate any violations of their policies or the law and take action against users who do not uphold the safety of themselves or others, MacKinnon writes this is not enough.
“There is no way to know whether pimps and traffickers are recruiting the unwary or vulnerable or desperate or coercing them offscreen and confiscating or skimming the proceeds, as is typical in the sex industry,” MacKinnon details.
She continues to write that most women enter the sex industry — online or in-person — being underage, adding that their vulnerability is central to their marketability since children are presented as adults, and adults often presented as children.
While OnlyFans requires creators to be at least 18-years-old and to go through an age verification process, many say it’s easy to defeat or have an older individual sign up for a minor.
To combat this injustice, MacKinnon points to enacting an effective bill from California into law, as the legislation “adapts the best features of copyright, libel and trafficking law to solve this problem.”
“If passed,” MacKinnon writes, “it would create a civil legal claim for victims of online sex trafficking — naked or sexual visuals of minors or of adults who were coerced or tricked or victims of theft. Once notice is given, the trafficker would have to take the materials down or pay $100,000 for every two hours they remained accessible.”
MacKinnon concludes that anyone who is sex trafficked on online platforms needs real protection in order to make it in our world.
In light of the recent filings and claims, OnlyFans has released this statement:
OnlyFans is strictly an 18 and over social media platform. OnlyFans does not tolerate any violations of our policies and we immediately take action to uphold the safety and security of our users. The platform’s Trust & Safety division has grown alongside the business and OnlyFans continues to commit top resources to this area. OnlyFans hosts over 1.25 million creators. The site has in-depth policies and procedures in place to proactively monitor any attempt to fraudulently access the platform, including access by minors, and should there be any contravention of these terms, the account is immediately closed. OnlyFans continues to increase monitoring measures to prevent any fraudulent breaches.
Catherine A. MacKinnon is a lawyer, scholar, writer, teacher and activist. She teaches law at the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School and works for sexually violated people around the globe.
Her full New York Times editorial can be accessed here.
Additional Reading: Policing Sex Workers: NYPD Vice Unit Targeted Minorities, says Report